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Nationalist sentiments have been spreading across the Western World, from the US to the UK. Much of this sentiment ends up being directed towards immigrants, as well as long-standing residents from Asia and Africa. But the reality of ethnic diversity in Europe is much more complicated when one looks through the lens of history, particularly with regards to relationships between Southern Europe and Africa.

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Spain in particular, which during the 2002 Seville Sommet argued for the implementation of laws that would further criminalize migrants from outside of the EU, has a complicated history with regards to its relationship to immigration, particularly African immigration. For thousands of years, people have passed back and forth across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain to North Africa blending the artistic, cultural, and religious traditions of both regions into the Spain we know today.

This type of cultural blending no doubt started in prehistoric times, but historical records show conflict between the Roman empire and the African Carthaginians as early as 264 BC. The most infamous interaction between North Africa and Southern Spain came in 711, when Islamic North Africans took control of the Iberian peninsula and held it, despite strong opposition, for more than 700 years.

Such a lengthy occupation left an undeniable mark on Spain. Many of the country’s most impressive architectural features, including the Alcazar in Seville and the Alhambra palace in Granada, were built during this time of the ruling North Africans. Recent studies have shown that many of modern Spain’s inhabitants have a significant amount of African ancestry, presumably from this time period. This is apparently true of the vast majority of Southern Europeans including Italians and Greeks, as well as the Spanish.

Yet this blended ancestry is very rarely acknowledged, especially now as anti-African sentiment seems to be on the rise in Spain. Indeed, modern Afro-Spanish people often face housing and job discrimination and are disproportionately targeted by the Spanish police. Though this type of behavior is often brushed off as isolated incidents of xenophobia, in reality this discrimination rarely takes into consideration whether the individuals targeted are recent immigrants or Spanish born.

Re-education regarding the long history of people of African descent in Spain and indeed all of Southern Europe, might serve as a first step towards ending this kind of institutional bias.

Ed. Note: A previous version of this article referred to the Islamic group of North Africans as “Moors,” a historical but unspecific term that some find offensive. 


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Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Jan., 2009), pp. 348-355
Sage Publications, Inc.